At the close of his fourth year as Pitt's chancellor, Patrick Gallagher talked with The Pitt News about the major milestones of the year.
(Photo by Christian Snyder)
At this weekend’s graduation, Chancellor Patrick Gallagher will send off the first group of seniors he also witnessed start their first days of classes at Pitt four years ago.
Like most of the graduating class, Gallagher’s fourth year was a busy one. The Pitt News talked with the chancellor last week about his recent decisions and opinions on the past year, from state funding concerns to graduate student unionization efforts.
Looking back on this year, Gallagher said he is proud of the way the University community addressed both local and national issues. He said the national environment at the beginning of the year was one of “tension — a lot of it aimed at university campuses.”
Whether it was sitting down with student leaders to talk about what Pitt should do in wake of events in Charlottesville, to ongoing discussions about renaming Parran Hall, he said the way Pitt responded to these controversies could be “a model for others.”
“I’m really proud of how the University has done what universities do best — not shy away from the issues but to engage with them openly and with some intellectual honesty,” Gallagher said.
He also admitted there are some things he would change — like his decision to not address the Pitt community about former student Alina Sheykhet, who was found dead in her apartment in October. Police arrested her ex-boyfriend, Matthew Darby, against whom Sheykhet had filed a restraining order in September. The University answered questions from the media, but Gallagher said it didn’t feel appropriate to use the death to talk about issues like partner violence — a decision some students criticized him for.
But he noted Sheykhet’s death can still affect the conversation about partner violence, citing a bill in the state legislature known as Alina’s Law that Pitt’s Student Government Board supported. The bill would allow judges to order defendants in restraining order cases to wear electronic monitoring devices if the defendant poses a substantial risk of violating their restraining order.
“I think the lesson I took away from it is there are a lot of ways to have a dialogue and learn and improve from tragedy,” Gallagher said. “I just hope the degree to which we cared about this isn’t measured by whether I wrote a separate statement to the community rather than the sum total of everything we were trying to do.”
Among other controversial actions his administration made this year is opposing graduate students’ efforts to unionize. The outgoing provost, Patricia Beeson, released a statement July 27 on behalf of University administration saying she has “serious concerns that a graduate student union would not be in the best interests of either our students or the broader University.”
Since then, the graduate students collected cards and are ready to host an election, which the University has announced they will try to refute with the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board. Organizers are also trying to unionize Pitt faculty, with faculty signing the first union cards in January.
“For the faculty situation, my view is that there’s a process for this and at the end we’ll have a debate and there will be a vote and people will decide whether it’s more in their interest or not to be represented through a labor union,” Gallagher said. “The case of the graduate students is a little bit different. In my mind, the difference is that some of the work-related activities we’re talking about are part of the academic requirements.”
Though a similar situation happened with the graduate students at Penn State, and the PLRB ruled in favor of the graduate students unionizing, Gallagher defended Pitt’s decision to take this case to the PLRB and get its ruling on the particular situation.
“If [the PLRB] decides yes, then we’ll go through the discussions and then you’re back to where we are with the faculty. If they decide this is different in some way, then we’ll act accordingly,” Gallagher said.
The University also faced uncertainty this year when the state government’s delayed budget threatened Pitt’s funding — a scenario Gallagher has seen several times in his tenure. While Gallagher said he thinks it won’t be an issue next year with the governor election underway, he thinks a delay will likely happen again in the future. He said being financially stable and in high demand allows the schools to face “this uncertainty from a position of strength.”
“Sometimes people want us to make an argument that the reason for state funding is that we would be in financial distress without it — in other words, it’s like welfare. They want us to be destitute before the state supplies funding,” he said. “That would be crazy, because the argument then would be I’m going to run the University into the ground until there’s no resources and then ask for a bailout from the state. I think that would be irresponsible.”
Gallagher thinks it would be “crazy” for Pennsylvania to stop funding its four state-related institutions — Pitt, Penn State, Lincoln and Temple.
“I mean, these are your flagship universities for the state, and the only consequence of failing to support them is a brain drain … So why would a state want to do that?” he said. “Whether that’s happened in a crisis year or just a slow, not-keeping-up-with-inflation year, the reality is I don’t see enough consensus to turn that around.”
Gallagher also discussed an issue that has come to define the year for everyone, not just college students — the #MeToo movement, a widespread sharing of stories of sexual harassment and sexual assault that has toppled figures in Hollywood, politics and media.
Pitt found itself in the middle of the movement when a former communication professor published a blog post in December detailing years of mistreatment by male coworkers and a department-wide culture that tolerated sexual harassment and inappropriate relationships. Since then, Pitt opened a Title IX investigation into the department and the dean of the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences said the department continues to undervalue women.
Gallagher said as the country’s tide shifted, the University’s perspective changed as well, shifting away from just aiming sexual assault education toward students.
“I remember early on people were trying to say, ‘Our kids have gone crazy!’ and that wasn’t the issue. This was a societal problem,” he said. “And of course what we realized is that we’re not immune from that — we’re part of it. Issues about faculty, staff and others have been the more recent focal point.”
Gallagher also discussed Pitt’s role in the City, citing the community’s expectation that the University encourages equitable growth.
“We’re a city of communities, of neighborhoods, and if the existing Pittsburgh can’t participate in that new economy and they just get pushed out of the way, that is an ugly form of transformation,” he said.
He said Pitt has been given a “real gift” in that the City has welcomed the school “with open arms.”
“Just think about what that means from a student perspective to get out and be involved in some groundbreaking stuff and to gain that experience and put that classroom part to work in some ways,” he said. “So that’s pretty cool.”